The conventional wisdom says Merced’s Adam Gray is an easy winner in this year’s race for Congress in California’s newly configured District 13 (CA-13). Gray’s years in the State Assembly District in the same region as CA-13 give him what amounts to incumbent status and his careful cultivation of the conservative Democrat “Blue Dog” persona theoretically immunizes him from threats to his right. It’s supposedly impossible for San Joaquin Valley Democrats to win without the Blue Dog cloak of conservative values.
Most authorities attribute the origins of the Blue Dog identity to an outgrowth of southern Democrats going as far back as the Dixiecrats — states’ rights advocates resistant to federal mandates against segregation and voter suppression. Early on, the group consisted chiefly of white males. In the 1990s, Valley Democrat Gary Condit was one its earliest leaders. Current versions are multi-cultural; the group was formerly best known for helping kill the public option for health care in 2009.
The problem for Gray — whether major or minor remains to be seen — is that he likely wouldn’t be running if Congressman Josh Harder hadn’t moved from CA-13 to CA-9 when incumbent Democrat Jerry McNerney decided to retire. Harder turned the conventional wisdom upside down in 2018 when he ousted highly-favored Republican Jeff Denham while running as a traditional Democrat in a non-presidential election year; according to the conventional wisdom, both factors should have eliminated him from any expectation of victory. Harder won with a voter-focused ground game that grew weekly into a convincing win at the polls.
Today, there’s reason to believe the Blue Dog identity has outlived its utility. Again, Josh Harder provides a compelling example. Very early on in his first term, Harder established a record for bipartisan legislative accomplishment, achieving 75% bipartisan support for legislation he endorsed. Harder clearly doesn’t need to cloak himself in a fabricated identity even while he upholds traditional democratic principles favoring small business, labor, agriculture and expansion of economic opportunity through education, job training, and financial aid. When bipartisanship serves the commonweal, he’s bipartisan.
Adam Gray’s strongest challenger from the right is nurseryman John Duarte, who has opted to run as a Republican. It’s a curious choice because Valley Republicans are carrying not just the baggage of Donald Trump but that of Kevin McCarthy, the most powerful local Republican in the House of Representatives and a man who’s chosen abject servitude over honor, repeatedly currying favor from the former president in a crawling display of public prostration that would shame an earthworm. He’s also a liar whose repeated falsehoods continue even after nearly simultaneous refutation.
If Republicans take back the House, McCarthy is the most likely member to become Speaker; in short, Duarte would be taking direction from a moral poltroon who is willing to sacrifice the American Republic to win favor from a mendacious fomenter of sedition in the form of the Insurrection on January 6, 2021.
Duarte himself is a man of honor. One can only wonder why he wants to sign on to a party that favors voter suppression, regressive taxation, disproportionate wealth inequality, and growing enthusiasm for global authoritarianism.
The Republican platform is so clearly against the foundational principles of our nation that its leaders have been forced into fabricating distractions from policy in the form of attacks on Mickey Mouse. Then there are Tucker Carlson’s laments about the nation’s loss of manhood even as he grovels at the feet of a rouged septuagenarian who in his youth pled a debilitating case of bone spurs to avoid military service. Yes, there certainly is a dearth of manhood these days, most evident by an ever-growing cadre of spineless Republican politicians and their media lackeys.
In addition to a challenge from the right, Gray faces a strong campaign mounted by Phil Arballo, who is running as a traditional Democrat. As is typical in the Valley, Arballo will be characterized by opponents as a radical leftist in thrall to Nancy Pelosi, but those kinds of claims have grown less and less effective in a region that grew more politically sophisticated after Donald Trump ripped off the masks of civility and “compassionate conservatism” that once disguised Republican strategies of voter disenfranchisement and plutocratic rule.
The chief difference between Arballo and Gray is that Arballo has taken on the burden of representation for the Valley’s most neglected and needy citizens. While Adam Gray boasts of opposing California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), Arballo vows to bring potable water to citizens in Valley towns whose tap water isn’t safe to drink. Foregrounding traditional Democratic issues like broader access to education, protection of voting rights and living wages, Arballo has mounted a formidable campaign based on fundamental Democratic values of equal representation, equal opportunity, and social justice.
The message borne by Josh Harder and Phil Arballo should be clear to all Valley voters: Valley Democrats should be proud of who they are. The Democratic Party’s historic support for labor, expansion of economic opportunity and ongoing campaigns for civil rights helped lead women and ethnic minorities into the halls of congress and justice where their presence continues to grow and shape the future. It’s the same history that built the most prosperous middle class the world has ever seen, much of it comprised of hard working laborers.
It was the Democratic Party that led our nation through the Great Depression and the Second World War, and it is today’s Democratic Presidency that has mounted the strongest opposition to the murderer Putin’s war against the democratic nation of Ukraine. Contrary to local propaganda, Democratic policies have almost always promoted strong economies, whether during the Clinton boom of the 1990s or the Obama recovery after the disastrous Bush recession.
Josh Harder and Phil Arballo have revived the Democratic spirit of proud support for traditional American values. Valley citizens should follow their lead. Democrats can win.